In November 2014, just after OPEC officially died with the 2014 Thanksgiving massacre which was the first oil-crushing catalyst that has led to crude's relentless decline since Saudi Arabia officially broke off with the rest of the cartel, sending the black gold to a price of around $28 per barrel, we revealed who the first oil-exporting casualty of the crude carnage would be: the Latin American socialist paradise that is Venezuela.
Back then we said that the best way to bet on the OPEC cartel collapse, and the inevitable death of said socialist paradise as we know it, was to buy Venezuela CDS. Sure enough, anyone who has done so has generated massive returns since then.
More importantly, the wait for the long-overdue credit event is coming to an end.
As Barclays' Alejandro Arreaza notes, Venezuela has officially reached the "point of no return" and writes that "the economic emergency decree and any measures that the government could take at this point may be too late. After two years of inaction and the recent decline in oil prices, a credit event in 2016 is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid, in our view."
Here is why Barclays thinks that the first OPEC default is now just a matter of time:
Point of No Return
- The economic emergency decree and any measures that the government could take at this point may be too late. After two years of inaction and the recent decline in oil prices, a credit event in 2016 is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid, in our view.
- The figures released by the BCV show that foreign currency assets had reached USD35.5bn by the end of Q3 2015; however, we believe that they could have dropped further in Q4, to USD27.6bn, which is lower than our previous estimate of USD33bn.
- Considering current oil prices, any reasonable additional import cuts may be insufficient to cover the financing gap, in our view. At the oil price that the futures curve is pricing in (USD/b32), the government would need to use more than 90% of oil exports to make debt payments if we include market, bilateral, commercial, and Chinese Fund obligations.
- The authorities keep reiterating their willingness to pay. However, their position seems to indicate a lack of appreciation of the magnitude and roots of the critical situation that the Venezuelan economy is facing, which may increase the risk of a disorderly credit event.
- The government could still make the February payment using its available assets; however, they are insufficient to finance the gap of nearly USD30bn that Venezuela could face in 2016, considering our commodities team’s estimate of Brent at USD/b37, which is above what the oil future curve is pricing in (USD/b 32).
- Inaction has been costly for Venezuela. Although GDP growth figures were better than expected, they confirm that the country is in a severe recession, with an accumulated contraction of approximately 16% in the past two years, and considering the contraction that we expect in 2016, the country could lose almost one quarter of its GDP.
- Inflation had reached 141.5% by the end of Q3 2015, but is likely to have continued to accelerate in Q4, possibly exceeding 200% as we expected, showing the effects of monetization of the fiscal deficit.
Some more details, first on the lack of disposable assets to face the oil price collapse
After more than a year without publishing official data for the main economic indicators, the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) finally released the figures. The results are mixed. While activity indicators suggest that the economy’s contraction could have been smaller than we and the consensus expected, the external sector posted worse-than-expected results. The combination of lower-than-expected exports and higher-than-expected imports led to a larger-than-expected current account deficit. To finance this deficit, the public sector has been forced to liquidate more assets, which, in our view, leaves it with less than it would need to finance the deficit that it faces for 2016.
There have been important methodological changes in the way the official data are presented. In the case of the balance of payments, there is a reclassification of transactions that had previously been reported as capital outflows and seem to have been moved to imports of either goods or services. As a result, previous years’ current account balances have changed significantly (as a reference, the 2012 current account declined from USD11bn to just USD2.6bn). We believe that was mainly due to public sector trade transactions such as the “services” provided by Cuba under the energy agreements or imports of military equipment and capital goods from Russia, which previously were not considered imports. In addition, the exports show a balance for 2014/15 that is lower than PDVSA oil export figures suggest (circa 6% lower). A possible explanation for this could be that BCV figures are showing net exports, discounting crude imports. In the prices figures, there are important changes in weights of the different CPI components, particularly those that have increased the most (food). On several occasions, we contrasted official Venezuelan figures with other sources of information, but we have not found large inconsistencies. The differences have been explained mainly by accounting methods – for example, in oil exports, the type of crudes and products that are considered. Nonetheless, in the past, the market has been skeptical about the credibility of the official information, and these changes without a clear explanation increase the concerns.
BCV figures suggest that the government’s FX allocations to the private sector through the different mechanism (CENCOEX, SICAD, SIMADI) covered around half of the total private sector imports of goods and services. This could be an important factor when oil prices recover because it could give the government additional room, cutting FX allocations with a less than proportional effect in terms of imports. However, considering current oil prices, any reasonable import cut seems likely to be insufficient to cover the financing gap. Public sector external assets would have to decline below what we consider minimum operational levels. At the oil price that the futures curve is pricing in (USD/b32), the government would need to use more than 90% of the oil exports to make debt payments if we include market, bilateral, commercial, and Chinese Fund obligations (Figure 3). After two years of inaction, with depleting external assets and the recent decline in oil prices, a credit event in 2016 may be becoming hard to avoid, in our view.
In other words, a default is coming in 2016, which may explain Maduro's increasingly more panicked pleas to OPEC to cut production, pleas which fall on deaf ears.
Who is to blame for the country's imminent bankruptcy? Well, the government of course, although in all honesty Maduro's regime has not dony anything different from every other "developed" regime in the past 6 years, which instead of undertaking difficult fiscal reform and structural changes, merely kicked the can hoping things would get better.
They didn't, and now Venezuela has to pay the piper.
Inaction has been costly
In addition to the weaker external position of the country, the rest of the economic indicators show a strong deterioration. The government has avoided an orthodox adjustment and has preferred to implement quantitative restrictions. The results indicate that the authorities’ inaction in tackling the large distortions in the economy has been costly for the country. Although GDP growth figures were better than expected, they confirmed that Venezuela is in a severe recession. GDP fell 4.5% in the first three-quarters of the year, but considering its trend and tightening of controls by the government, the whole-year contraction could have been 5.8%, with an accumulated contraction of approximately 16% in the past two years, and considering the contraction expected in 2016, it could lose almost one quarter of its GDP.
Inflation had reached 141.5% by the end of Q3 2015, but it is likely to have continued to accelerate in Q4, possibly exceeding 200% as we expect, showing the effects of monetization of the fiscal deficit.
Although these inflation figures are historical, we believe they underestimate real inflation. In fact, since June 2014, the central bank has modified the method used to calculate the inflation rate, changing the weights of different goods and services that make up the consumer price index. Curiously, the new weighting system reduced the effect on general inflation of some groups such as food, alcoholic beverages, restaurants, and hotels, characterized by a higher inflation rate than the average, and increased the weights of rents and telecommunications groups, characterized by lower inflation rates associated with strict price controls or a heavy market share by state companies.
As a consequence of these reforms, the official inflation rate was 68.5% in 2014, instead of 76% using the previous method. In 2015, the gap from using the different methods is even larger. Consider the inflation number on a year-on-year basis for all sectors, inflation would have been187.9% instead of 141.5%. For the first nine months of 2015, using the new weights, the BCV indicated that inflation reached 108.7%, but with the old weights, inflation would have been at 144.1%. Following this trend, we expect that the official inflation rate could close 2015 at 210.4%, more than double the highest rate in Venezuelan history, but using the previous weights, inflation could have been 290.7%. Such high inflation has a strong detrimental effect not only on real salaries, but also on income distribution, as the lowest income part of the population tends to have fewer alternatives to protect against inflation. This could increase social and political risks, making the current equilibrium increasingly unstable.
Translation: first default, then revolution.
Which is good news for those who buy CDS. Our only hope for those who have held so far is that the counterparty you will have to novate with will still be around once the sparks fly, because once this first OPEC member goes bankrupt, things will start moving very fast.
Finally, for all those who are praying for an oil bounce, your day may be near, because nothing will send the price of crude soaring quite as fast as one entire OPEC nation suddenly entering a death spiral of chaos.